Cedars of Lebanon
Bilal Kaafarani first appeared at my laboratories at Bowling Green State University's Center for Photochemical Sciences in 1998. Bilal was Lebanese, and a graduate of the American University in Beirut- one of the most successful universities in the middle east. He married another of my Ph.D. alumni, Brigitte Wex, and after post-doctoral experiences at the University of Arizona and Georgia Tech, he landed at the American University of Beirut, where he is now a full professor of chemistry. Meanwhile, his wife has risen to become chair of the Department of Natural Sciences at the Lebanese American University. These two extremely accomplished scientists somehow have also found the time to have three children.
Academic scientists often get very close to the students taking advanced degrees in their labs; and that was certainly the case for me, Brigitte and Bilal. Brigitte was German and had studied at the University of Freiburg before starting at BGSU. She found organic chemistry much more to her liking than the biology program she originally came for, and before we knew it she was a graduate student in the photochemical sciences.
When she finished we arranged a position for her at the University of Mainz, but she disliked the situation for women scientists in a major German lab, and soon quit.
I respected her even more for her doing that.
We’ve been in contact often over the years, and have compared notes not just on the sciences, but on the world situation. Lebanon, a country with about five million people crammed into a space less than a tenth the size of Ohio, has had a dreadful time over the past few decades. I reached out to Bilal after a report on PBS about how climate change is destroying the famous cedar trees of Lebanon.
The Lebanese have had to be plucky in order to survive, and he told me that they are making lemonade from lemons as best as they can.
But life there today is very, very hard. To put it in his words:
“As for us, I can't say we are fine... Nobody is fine here. We are all living in denial. The horizon does not look good. The economic collapse and the dramatic devaluation of the national currency are making a lot of people suffer. The horrific chemical explosion on Aug 4, 2020, wiped out a large part of Beirut and showed how much corruption is rooted in the country. People are traumatized. Mental health is at its lowest. In fact, I have been hosting mentoring talks by renowned speakers from different walks of life since 2016. Now, such mentoring talks are needed more than any other time.”
That explosion he mentioned, at a warehouse that housed improperly stored dangerous chemicals, killed hundreds, injured thousands, and displaced something like 300,0000 people.
Nevertheless, Bilal and Brigitte, authentic heroes, keep soldiering on, trying to educate young people, do research and build a better life.
He recently published an article about his mentoring initiative in Angewandte Chemie, a German chemistry journal, and has been leading a drive to transform education for more than a decade. (See his website: www.aub.edu.lb/TrEd.) The American University of Beirut launched a Transformative Education movement in February 2011.
Since then, the eight different initiatives of TrEd have been aimed at providing students with a holistic approach to education to transform their lives and to empower them to become creative leaders.
They do this by using interactive academic events, experiential learning through hosting renowned and inspiring speakers from all over the world, and much more. As Bilal put it, “We believe that every student is distinguished in a unique way, and it is our mission to provide students with the platform to excel and think outside the box. TrEd paves the way for every student to discover their road to excellence.”
Mostly, they address areas around the interface between medicine and the basic sciences. They also develop intense mentoring experiences for the students in both disciplines, which represent areas Lebanon sorely needs. They are, in short, doing as well as they can under horribly trying circumstances.
Here’s hoping things improve for them and for Lebanon, one of the most beautiful countries in the world, a land with a tragic but inspiring past. Let’s hope that with the help of people like my two brilliant former students that Lebanon and the Lebanese can rise above it all for the betterment of their nation and all of humankind.
Douglas Neckers is a Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) at Bowling Green State University and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences. He served as chair of the board of the Robert H. Jackson Center.
Photo from The Transformative Education Drive at AUB